Tracing Immigrant Ancestors to the British Isles
Richard W. Price, MA, AG®
Probably the biggest challenge facing the American family historian is determining where in Europe the family originated. Published and indexed records produced in recent years have made great strides in assisting in this endeavor. England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own resources to make such connections. However, the procedure in determining which sources to use begins with North American sources, which apply equally well to all countries of origin.
I. Historical Trends that Affect Your Research
A. American Immigration History by time-period
- Colonial Period 1600-1776: English, Welsh, Scottish, Scotch-Irish
- 1776-1820: Same groups but in decreasing numbers
- 1820-1880 Catholic Irish came with potato famines
- After 1880 lesser immigration of British and Irish
B. Migration Factors
- Push Factor: Religious persecution, economic hardship, mandatory military service, fled poverty or oppression in Britain. Usually negatively motivated
- Pull Factor: Want something better, availability of land, jobs, religious freedom
- Transported prisoners: From 1611 to 1870, more than 200,000 criminals were conditionally pardoned, exiled, and transported to penal colonies. Before 1775, over 50,000 prisoners were sent to America – primarily Virginia and Maryland.
- Free emigrants: Beginning 1606, emigrants left Britain to promote trade or set up military outposts and way stations for merchant ships.
Military personnel: Upon discharge, soldiers serving overseas were offered land, to settle in the colony they were serving in. Common practice in Canada 1815 on.
- Latter-day Saints: Beginning 1840, about 65,000 Latter-day Saints emigrated to the United States, mostly going to Illinois or Utah.
- Means: Have ability, freedom, monetary means to migrate.
- Shifts in transportation technology & cheap passage
- Migrations Followed Patterns
- Migrated together – neighbors, relatives, communities ie Hingham religious freedom.
- Lawton-Grimble-Robert prominent Huguenot families together in Edisto Island, S.C., Barbados, England – traveled together, intermarried
- May be able to trace neighbor with less common name than your own ancestor
- Canada: 1815 to 1850, primary destination of British emigrants. Over 650,000 moved to Canada. Military settlers and Loyalists account for 200,000 British settlers in Canada. Before 1900, most immigrants arrived in Quebec City or Halifax. Passenger lists are rare before 1865. Lists from 1865-1900 are at the Family History Library. See Canada Research Outline for details.
II. North American Sources
The first source to consult is family records, including diaries, stories and traditions. Letters to and from relatives oversees give clues as to where the family came from and when. Seek photos to see if photographer or locality is given. Look on back of photos. Other sources to consult include:
- Census: Federal & State
- Land Records & Deeds
- Tombstones & Cemetery Records
- Probate Records
- Notarial Records
- Naturalization Records
- Church Records
- Published family, town & county histories
- Homestead Records
- Immigration and Emigration Records
- Passenger Lists
- Lists of Freemen
- Court Records
- Town Records
- Vital Records
- College Records
- Medical Records
- Military Records
- Social Security Death index/applications
Study patterns of colonization and development in the history of the area of interest: Members of religious bodies frequently moved in groups from specific locations in Britain.
III. Electronic Tools or Indexes
- P. William Filby’s, Passenger & Immigration Lists Index. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1981- ).Guide to published lists of arrivals in the U.S. and Canada. Multiple volumes indexing over 1000 lists and millions of names of immigrants 1607 to the 20th century.
- Robert C. Anderson’s The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633. Goal to identify and describe all Europeans who settled New England pre-1634. Includes 15% of the immigrants to New England. Thorough Biographical sketches. 900 immigrants with tens of millions of descendants today. MyFamily.com
Most English immigrants to the United States arrived at New York. Immigrant lists are the main source of information on those who arrived there. If your ancestor came between 1892-1924, go to www.EllisIsland.org. Type in the ancestral name and you will be given full information on your ancestral family, the ship they came on, including image of ship.
- FAMILY TREE MAKER CDs Genealogy.com
- PERIODICALS: New England Historic and Genealogical Register, The American Genealogist, New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, The Genealogists’ Magazine; The Virginia Genealogist, Utah Genealogical Association Journal, etc.
- INDEXED MATERIALS: PUBLISHED & ON-LINE
International Genealogical Index
British Vital Records Index
Pedigree Resource File
IV. British Records of Emigration
To search emigration records, you should know the approximate date of emigration, the name of the ship, etc. If you know the ship’s name, Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping, fiche ed. (LaCrosse, Wisconsin: Brookhaven Press, 1981, FHL fiche 6024581-6025295; does not circulate to family history centers) may provide additional details on the ship, including ports of embarkation and arrival.
Passenger departure lists are rare in Britain before 1890, after which they are arranged chronologically by port of departure. These lists – which usually give the emigrant’s name, age, occupation ,address and destination, are kept at the Public Record Office, Kew, London.
British Probate records may mention emigrant relatives. Probates of persons dying overseas who owned property in England should have been proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and York (until 1858) or at the Principal Probate Registry (after 1857). Episcopal Consistory Court of London should always be checked. It had jurisdiction over British plantations overseas. American probates also can reference property in the British Isles.
Assisted Emigrants Registers: Persons who applied for assistance to emigrate were recorded in assisted emigrants registers, which often contain name, age, occupation, residence, destination, sponsor, address of relative, and size of family. Those at the FHL appear under: England – Emigration and Immigration or Great Britain – Emigration and Immigration, or Wales or Scotland – Emigration and Immigration.
Chancery Proceedings: Bernau Index to
Currer-Briggs Indexes, esp. Virginia
Acts of Privy Council, colonial Series
If you know the county: Quarter Sessions., Guild Records, Probates
Citizens of London pedigrees
Allen, David Grayson. In English Ways: The Movement of Societies and the Transferal of English Local law and Custom to Massachusetts Bay in the Seventeenth Century. Williamsburg, VA: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
Andrews, Charles M. “Guide to the Materials for American History, to 1783, in the Public Record Office of Great Britain,” Vol. I. The State Papers. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1912. Reprinted New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1965.
Bernau, Charles. Index to Chancery Proceedings, 1714-1758. See How to Use Abstracts to Chancery Proceedings (FHL 942, P2h).
Coldham, Peter W. American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1989.
________. English Estates of American Colonists: American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1699. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1980.
Coleman, Terry. Going to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972. To learn more about the emigration process and life on board an American-bound emigrant ship, study this text.
Colonial Office Records of England at Public Record Office have been cataloged in the PRO’s Lists and Indexes, vol. 36. This volume holds a list of all Colonial Office Records still in existence in Great Britain. It is divided into various sections. America and West Indies are listed separately by each colony. These have records of thousands of settlers in North America. Unfortunately they are not indexed nor easy to use.
Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.
Dobson, David. Scottish-American Wills, 1650-1900. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. , 1991.
________. Directory of Scottish Settlers in North America 1625-1825. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing co., 1984.
Eakle, Arlene, ed. Immigration Digest. These volumes contain a wide variety of sources and information relative to emigration to North America. Contact Genealogical Institute, 875 N. 300 East., Tremonton, UT 84337. (435)257-3185. $15 per issue or $125 entire set.
Eakle, Arlene, and Johni Cerni, eds. “Tracking Immigrant Origins.” Chapter 15 in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1984.
Filby, P. William and Mary K. Meyer, eds. Passenger and Immigrations Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900. 2d ed. Detroit: Gale Research co., 1988. This bibliography references thousands of published lists of immigrants to the United States that will eventually be included in Filby’s Passenger and Immigrations Lists Index.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Glazier, Ira A., ed. The Famine Emigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York, 1846-51. 7 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1983-86. These volumes contain many lists and indexes of Irish immigrants to the United States.
Harris, Ruth-Ann M., and Donald M. Jacobs, eds. The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot. 3 vols. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989-93. These volumes list more than 10,000 Irish immigrants to the United States and their places of origin. The information is based on advertisements run1831-1856.
Johnson, Keith A. & Malcolm R. Sainty. The GRD Genealogical Research Directory. Melbourne: McPherson’s Printing Group, 1998+. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Book put out annually 1200 pages. Directory of surnames with addresses of contact persons. Good source for contacting other genealogists working on your surname.
Law, Hugh T. How to Trace Your Ancestors to Europe. Salt Lake City: Cottonwood Books, 1987. Stories of what sources were used to trace immigrants successfully to Europe.
Lists of passengers arriving at most U.S. ports after 1820 are available at the Family History Library. Many are indexed. For more information, see the United States Research Outline on lds. org.
Sainsbury, W. Noel., ed. Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies 1669-1737. Vaduz: Kraus Reprint Ltd., 1964. These are official British government papers relative to the settling of North America. Also consult Calendar of State Papers, American Series.
Sherwood Slip Indexes. These are kept at the Public Record Office, London and are slips indexing names in the Chancery and other proceedings of London. They are available in part at the Family History Library.
Tepper, Michael. New World Immigrants: A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Date from Periodical Literature. 2 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979.
Whyte, Donald. Dictionary of Scottish Emigrants to the USA. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981.
________. Dictionary of Scottish Emigration to Canada before Confederation. Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 1986.
________. “Scottish Emigration: A Select Bibliography,” Scottish Genealogist. 21, no. 3 (1974): 65-8.